Friday, December 27, 2013

The reason behind Christian compassion

My mother-in-law’s memory loss continues to deteriorate.  When we converse we seem to spin in ever a smaller circles.  Our conversations used to contain several topics that popped up again and again.  Now the conversation tends to orbit around one topic, often our current location.   

The other day our conversation went like this:

Dorris: Where do I live?

Me: You live at the Arbors.

Dorris: Where are we?

Me: We are in Lincoln.

Dorris: Do you live in Lincoln?

Me: Yes, we all live in Lincoln.
Dorris: Where do I live?

Me: You live in Lincoln.

Dorris: Oh, Kim, this scares me.

Me: It scares me too, but I know you are safe.  

Showing compassion sounds like an easy thing, but may in fact, be more complicated than we think.  There are several ways to respond to Dorris.  I could recognize her fear, and fight it:

“Oh, Dorris, don’t worry.  I know where we are.  Leave it up to me.”

Or, I could flee from it:

“Dorris what do you have to worry about?  Your life is easy.  Someone is always there to tell you what to do.”

Perhaps, I could try to experience her fear for her:

“ I know what you mean.  I’ve felt lost before, too.”

The worst response would be to lose patience with her or to ignore her.  This would give her the message that she doesn’t deserve compassion.  I must admit that around about the tenth time in an hour when we have this conversation, this type of response is all too tempting.

The best response of compassion requires empathy.  It is a challenge to empathize with a person who is losing her memory.  How can I know what it feels like to lose words within seconds of hearing them?  How can I know what it feels like to have nothing be familiar?  Or what it feels like to be unsure of everything?  How can I know what to say that will bring comfort?  Even if I find that comfort, it will last for only seconds.  My response to Dorris is never quite right, it is never enough. I must trust the love of God to cover my feeble responses with His perfect compassion.

If it is a challenge for me to be patient with someone I love, imagine how hard it is to show compassion to someone I don’t know.  To show compassion to someone who is different from me.  To show compassion to someone who does not inspire compassion because perhaps, he has not earned it.

Lately, among political pundits and in social media, I had seen increasing evidence of this kind of conditional compassion.  When we begin to think compassion is only for those who are suffering due to circumstances beyond their control, we give ourselves permission to ignore the sufferings of those who bear some responsibility for their condition.  Perhaps those who spent their money unwisely, did not pursue education that would give them a high paying job, chose to live in a dangerous area, or haven’t managed to find a job that gives them health insurance.  It is easy to tell ourselves that such compassion is not only undeserved, but is potentially harmful. 

Since when do any of us earn compassion?  I may earn my own money for food, although just barely at the moment, but I have never earned the compassion of my Savior.  If God waited for us to earn compassion, then once we did earn it, we would no longer need it.  In fact, if we could earn compassion through righteousness and careful decision-making, we would not even need God. Our faith is built on the truth that we cannot earn compassion, but never-the-less it is given freely.

Compassion is never earned, it is always given out of unconditional love.  Compassion does not mean there is no punishment for wrongdoing, no consequence for poor decisions, and it doesn’t guarantee rescue.  In our relationship with God compassion is always present.  Compassion must be present or there would be no relationship, there would be no life.

We are expected to forgive each other because God forgives us.  We are expected to love each other because God loves us.  Likewise, we are expected to show compassion, unconditionally, because we receive such compassion from Him.  While compassion sometimes involves rescue, it is separate from that act.  Compassion is empathy.  Compassion is love.  Compassion is making ourselves equal with others because we recognize we also do not deserve the compassion we receive.   

We do not have to all endorsed the same political solutions in order to show compassion.  We just need to remember where compassion originates and practice it.

In my own life, when I have been confronted with my lack of compassion, I have been forced to wonder if compassion was replaced by my fear.  Sometimes I don’t want to get involved.  Sometimes I want to convince myself that what I have done has earned me my life.  This fear too easily replaces compassion with contempt.  If I want to give others only what they have earned then contempt is where I want to be.  However, I most certainly do not want the contempt I deserve from my fellow man or my Heavenly Father. There is no love, or life, found in contempt.

Just as God is the only one who can show true compassion, He is the only one who can give us the courage to be compassionate.  He can, and does, take away our fear and our contempt.  He mercifully replaces that fear and contempt with a desire and ability to show compassion.  We are blessed when we show compassion.  We are blessed with empathy and understanding and we are blessed to use our faith.  Most importantly, we are blessed by God’s compassion for us.

Our world is a complicated confusing place.  Scripture does not give us political solutions, it does not give us simple answers, but it does give us direction, and hope, and faith. God shows me compassion day after day. He shows me compassion even when I cannot comprehend the world as He does. He shows me compassion even when I forget it seconds after I have been blessed. His love always holds me as His precious child.

The steadfast love of the Lord never ceases; his mercies never come to an end; they are new every morning; great is your faithfulness. “The Lord is my portion,” says my soul, “therefore I will hope in him.” The Lord is good to those who wait for him, to the soul who seeks him. It is good that one should wait quietly for the salvation of the Lord. Lamentations 3: 22-26 ESV

We who are strong have an obligation to bear with the failings of the weak, and not to please ourselves. Let each of us please his neighbor for his good, to build him up. Romans 15:1-2 ESV

Brothers, if anyone is caught in any transgression, you who are spiritual should restore him in a spirit of gentleness. Keep watch on yourself, lest you too be tempted. Bear one another's burdens, and so fulfill the law of Christ. For if anyone thinks he is something, when he is nothing, he deceives himself. Galatians 6: 1-3 ESV

Friday, December 6, 2013

Faith in a cast

For four weeks I have been in protection mode.   I have cradled my broken limb in a splint, in a sling, and in my mind, as I carefully walk through my day.  I have done this as if convinced I could bring about healing.  I even winced my way off of four planes assuming a false hope that flinching could prevent overhead bin luggage from smacking into my arm.

Now, we are five weeks after the injury and four weeks after the surgery.  The bone is healed and held firmly in its place by a plate and screws.   The arm, however, is another story.  I lovingly refer to it as Frankenarm.  I can feel it, move it some, and it is connected to my shoulder, but I barely recognize it as mine.   The arm is thin with weak muscles.  The hand and wrist unrecognizable due to swelling.  Thick layers of skin, denied the natural privilege of shedding, now buckle and flake creating little piles of foreign matter every place my arm occupies.

The results of five weeks of protection, five weeks of inactivity, are stunning.  I apply heat treatment to the wrist to loosen things up for stretching and then follow that with a cold pack to reduce swelling in my fingers.  My blood doesn’t know if it should run hot or cold.

My day is still left-handed because the fingers on my right hand are useless, but, I have to continually remind myself to move that arm, as if it works, so I can exercise muscles that no longer pay attention to automatic messages from the brain. 
For four weeks I have been in protection mode.  Now I need to change from protect to push.

Yesterday was day one for Frankenarm.  I spent the day extending the arm at the elbow so that my fingers no longer yearn for the comfortable spot over my abdomen.   Today, I press against the wall to straighten my fingers and practice turning my hand palms up.  I need to accomplish this before I can complete the exercises and stretches that will return my arm to a useful state.

The road to being able to type my dissertation looks so long I have taken to hiding chocolate so as to ensure an ample supply.  Desperate situations call for desperate measures. 

Now I wonder if I perform similar protection rituals with my faith? Have I wrapped it in my Bible and held it close to my chest?  When I am faithful in Scripture, Sacraments, and Worship, my faith is fed, much like my arm.  But, what happens to a faith that goes unused? What happens to a faith that doesn’t see work?

It risks dying.

For as the body apart from the spirit is dead, so also faith apart from works is dead.   James 2:26

For weeks my arm has had everything it needs except for work.  When not exposed to the air it could not shed old skin.  While held still in one position the bones were allowed to heal but the muscles began to die.  Lack of activity allowed fluids to gather in my fingers which only proved to encourage less activity.   Now my previously busy arm is pretty much useless.

When I protect my faith by refusing to expose it to different life perspectives, I risk my faith by replacing it with nothing but my own thoughts and feelings.  I need to read and listen to other perspectives and compare them, along with my own, to the truth offered by scripture.

When I protect my faith by refusing to expose it to new people who yearn for the promise of God’s Word I risk losing that faith as it dies layer by layer.  Judging others for their lack of faith and for their life circumstances is as harmful as neglecting to use my muscles.  Soon, I will find I cannot access a faith that is wrapped in useless tissue.

I broke my arm and was blessed by surgery, and the talented work of the medical staff.  I was further blessed by the care of family and friends.  I have my arm back and this reminds me that God is good.  I have much work to do before my arm is useful and that reminds me that God is good all the time.  

Count it all joy, my brothers, when you meet trials of various kinds, for you know that the testing of your faith produces steadfastness.  James 1:2-3

May God send a measure of His spirit to remind us good works can never save us, that the Word and Sacraments give our faith life, that worship reminds us of our standing with God, and that He designed our faith to be used; to be pushed and not protected.

and one of you says to them, “Go in peace, be warmed and filled,” without giving them the things needed for the body, what good  is that? So also faith by itself, if it does not have works, is dead.  But someone will say, “You have faith and I have works.” Show me your faith apart from your works, and I will show you my faith by my works.  James 2: 16-18